Putin: Russian troops can replace Austrians on Golan Heights

Russia is ready to replace peacekeepers from Austria in the Golan Heights, President Vladimir Putin said.

Putin’s statement on Thursday, Reuters reported, was in reaction to an announcement by the Austrian government, which said it would recall its troops from a U.N. monitoring force due to worsening fighting in Syria.

“Given the complicated situation in the Golan Heights, we could replace the leaving Austrian contingent in this region on the border between Israeli troops and the Syrian army,” Putin said at a televised meeting with Russian military officers.

“But this will happen, of course, only if the regional powers show interest, and if the U.N. secretary general asks us to do so,” he added.

Austria, whose peacekeepers account for about 380 of the 1,000-strong U.N. force observing a four-decade-old ceasefire between Syria and Israel, said it would pull out after intense clashes between Syrian government forces and rebels on the border.

Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s minister of intelligence, international relations and strategic affairs, said in a statement Thursday the Austrian move was “regrettable” and “teaches a clear and simple lesson: Even under a peace agreement, Israel cannot rely for its security on international forces to replace Israel Defense Forces.”

Russia, a longtime ally and arms supplier to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, is trying along with Western powers to bring the warring sides in Syria together for talks on a solution to the more than two-year-old conflict.

The U.N. Security Council will meet on Friday to discuss the Austrian withdrawal after anti-Assad rebels briefly seized the crossing between Israel and Syria, sending U.N. staff scurrying to bunkers before Syrian soldiers managed to push them back.

Austrian peacekeepers quitting U.N. force amid heavy fighting at Syria-Israel border

Austria withdrew its soldiers from the U.N. peacekeeping force on the Golan Heights following battles between Syrian troops and rebels.

On Thursday, Austria said it would be withdrawing its 380 soldiers — more than one-third of the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force that has been stationed on the Golan for 40 years.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry called on the U.N. to maintain security at the border.

“While appreciating Austria’s longtime contribution and commitment to peacekeeping in the Middle East, we nevertheless regret this decision and hope that it will not be conducive to further escalation in the region,” the ministry said in a statement. “Israel expects the United Nations to uphold its commitment under Security Council Resolution 350 (1974), in virtue of which UNDOF has been established.”

The withdrawal came after rebels and government forces in Syria’s civil war exchanged control of the border crossing between Israel and Syria.

The Quneitra Crossing on the Golan Heights changed hands at least twice Thursday, with the rebels taking the area in the morning and the army of President Bashar Assad retaking control later in the day, according to reports. The crossing is located about 200 feet from an Israeli army post.

A day earlier, the Syrian army and its Hezbollah volunteers captured the strategic town of Qusair on the Lebanon border following a two-week battle.

Following the retaking of Qusair, the Syrian military threatened Israel, saying in a statement that the victory sends a “clear message” to the “Zionist enemy.”

Israeli farmers in the area were instructed to keep away from the crossing area, Ynet reported.

Meanwhile, Israel lodged a complaint with the United Nations over Syria’s use of tanks on the Golan, which violates a cease-fire agreement between the two countries.